Health Care

15 Ways to Beat Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Feeling down in the dumps lately? Seasonal Affective Disorder (also called SAD) might be to blame. The mood disorder, which affects 10 to 20 percent of people, can occur during any seasonal change, but it’s most common in the winter months. Whether or not you think SAD is to blame for your moodiness, exhaustion, or irritability, these out-of-the-box solutions may help get you out of your seasonal slump.

By Jenn Sinrich

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Spend some time with animals
If the trending videos on the Internet of adorable pets aren’t proof enough, pets have serious healing powers. In fact, research continues to prove that the unconditional love and support pets provide can guard us against depression, stress, and loneliness. “If you are a pet owner, take time each day to touch, play, or chat with your animal,” suggests Mayra Mendez, PhD, psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. If you don’t have a pet, volunteer at your local animal shelter or even try cuddling with a stuffed animal or furry blanket for a few moments, she says. Here are even more proven benefits of owning a pet.

Take a warm, relaxing shower
Have you ever noticed how good you feel when you’re walking along the beach or standing next to a waterfall? That’s because rushing water and other elements of nature are chock-full of negative ions. “A negative ion is simply an atom that has an extra electron and a positive effect on our mind, body, and soul,” says Jennifer Blough, LLPC, professional counselor and owner of Deepwater Counseling in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “Positive ions, on the other hand, are produced by things such as electronics or air pollution and make us feel sluggish and depressed.” One of the easiest ways to get a healthy dose of feel-good ions? Take a shower and literally wash away your blues. Just be sure not to make one of these common winter showering mistakes.

Maintain a regular fitness routine

Exercise is the most effective, natural means for combating the blues and restoring health to the body. “The body’s designed to be rewarded with feel-good chemicals called endorphins in response to movement,” says Robin H-C, behaviorist and bestselling author of Thinking Your Way to Happy. “These chemicals create a sense of well-being, have an analgesic effect on the body, aid in relaxation, and enhance one’s ability to deal with life’s challenges and stressors.” If you don’t have a regular exercise routine, this is a great reason to start one. “Winter is a good time to join an exercise group, gym activities or other type of program that’ll help you create a regular routine and have support in maintaining it,” says Jennifer Horton, MS, life coach. While it might seem counteractive to go outside in the winter, breathing in fresh air and getting natural light will have a positive impact on your mood, too, so bundle up and head out for a soul stroll when you can. Here’s how to stay healthy and safe when exercising outdoors in winter.

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Eat a clean, healthy diet
During the colder months especially, you tend to crave comfort foods that warm the body physically by packing on a little extra fat. (Mac and cheese, anyone?) While there’s nothing wrong with having healthy fat in your diet, you can end up craving high glycemic carbs and other sugary delights that produce the exact opposite effect on our mood, possibly causing a crash in energy and an increasingly negative mindset. “Research suggests that the gut is home to many neurotransmitters [that affect mood], so in order to stay balanced, it’s imperative to maintain a healthy diet as part of your depression management plan,” explains Blough. “Keep SAD at bay by eating lots of fresh fruits and veggies, particularly those rich in beta-carotene such as sweet potatoes, broccoli or peaches, leafy greens and Vitamin-C packed berries, tomatoes or peppers.” Also, add foods high in vitamin E, such as nuts and seeds, lean proteins, and these low-glycemic snacks into your diet and make sure you stay hydrated with plenty of water.

Stay away from alcohol and caffeine
When dealing with any mood disorders, it’s best to avoid substances that are liable to amplify the symptoms. “Alcohol, processed sugar, caffeine, sedatives, and stimulating drugs of any kind will mess with your biochemistry and challenge your mental well-being,” says H-C. “It’s in your best interest—in the winter months as well as year round—to find natural, healthy ways to enhance your mood either through exercise or pursuing hobbies that make you happy.” Here are even more little ways to feel happier every day.

Redecorate and organize
Whether it’s switching up the furniture in your home or cleaning out a closet and donating stuff you don’t use anymore, decluttering your life physically can have an empowering effect mentally as well. “This strategy activates your creative juices and increases the chance that small changes may bring a greater sense of purpose and value to your life in the moment,” says Dr. Mendez. “It also stimulates a sense of success by reinforcing acceptance of creative implementation and opens the way for new perspectives or attitudes, which may be particularly helpful to someone who feels stuck in the drudgery of life.”

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Consider a pink Himalayan salt lamp
Similar to a shower, pink Himalayan salt lamps have been used to give off a negative ion frequency that purifies and cleanses surrounding air. “Negative ions are the same kind of ions you feel in the air when you’re at the top of a mountain or waterfall, by the sea shore, or after a thunderstorm,” says Jenny Giblin, a clinically trained therapist and health and wellness expert. “This can significantly help boost your mood and help you feel happier and calmer, especially if you’re someone who always feels better once you open a window for fresh air!”

Add some color to your daily life
Chromotherapy, the system of using color as a means of alternative medicine and healing, has been around since ancient times. Today, researchers are able to analyze the ways in which color and light are able to affect and improve psychological behavior. “I always try to make sure to have either fresh colorful flowers in my home, wear bright, vibrant polish, or even a red lipstick to up my mood,” says Erin Stutland, life and fitness coach in NYC and founder of Shrink Session, who suffers from SAD. “It doesn’t have to be dramatic, just something to give me a boost. I have to say, all of these things work like a charm for me.”

Have a good laugh
When you were a child, laughing was a staple of your everyday routine because it made you feel good. While you might have less to laugh at nowadays, the act can still provide that same mood-boosting effect it did back then. And it’s good for you, too! A new study from Maryland School of Medicine found that laughter is associated with healthy blood vessel functioning, which in turn causes relaxation and feelings of happiness. “When we laugh, our body releases positive body chemicals that reduce the brain’s perception of pain in the body,” says H-C. Be it a funny movie, surfing YouTube videos, or being playful with those closest to you, laughter heals. “Even faking laughter triggers the release of these happy juices in your body!”

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Indulge in your favorite hobbies
“When you’re feeling down, do something that takes you away from your overwhelming feelings and brings you to a happier place, even if only for a few minutes,” says Dr. Mendez. “This might include doing a craft, reading a book on your wish list, going to the movies, cooking your favorite meal or treat, looking up a new recipe, or listening to an inspirational message.” Doing something of interest offers you the opportunity to feel in control and take care of yourself. Create your own special memories, practices, traditions and rituals, and break away from the conventional, predictable routines. Practicing the Danish tradition of hygge can also help.

“Not only is giving always a mood-booster, but volunteering can also provide the opportunity for interactions that might otherwise have been neglected or avoided,” Dr. Mendez says. Programs like serving food at homeless shelters, volunteering to wrap gifts over the holidays or donating time to local community events such as parades all help reduce isolation, increase engagement in purposeful and meaningful activities, and provide opportunity to positively impact others’ lives.

Book a winter getaway to a warm spot
If it’s in your budget, even a few days away from the daily grind of life, ideally in tropical, sunny, or even just a warmer and brighter climate can have a big impact on your overall state of being. “Vacations to warmer climates allow you to regain perspective and reconnect to the warmth and light you’re craving,” says Stutland. “It doesn’t have to be extravagant or costly and there are always great deals on the Internet for weekend trips to all-inclusive resorts.” Your mental health is worth this purchase if you can swing it!

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Practice positive self-talk

When SAD hits, our thoughts and emotions tend to skew towards the negative. We can have a myriad of positive experiences throughout the day, but still end up focusing and even obsessing about the one negative thing that happened. That’s why many counselors utilize cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT offers practical, goal-oriented techniques that help clients recognize and change unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors that keep them locked in a chronic cycle of depression. “Having a ‘poor me’ conversation perpetuates a victim mentality and causes stress on the body and mind,” says H-C. Ultimately, life is a conversation and the daily dialogue could be considered an affirmation of sorts, so it’s important to pay close attention to what you say to yourself about the events and people in your life. “One of my own personal favorite ways to end the day on a positive note is in the form of positive journaling,” says Blough. “Simply writing down three good things that happened during the day, no matter how large or small—something as simple as a sunny day, a phone call from a friend, or getting out for a walk in nature—can go a long way in boosting your mood.”

Plan a spa day or sit in your gym’s sauna
Saunas have an amazing ability to heat up our body from the inside out and can also heal the joint pain that’s sometimes associated with winter, explains Giblin. “They’re also known to encourage weight loss and release toxins, which is especially important during winter when we naturally crave more sugar and carbs that can feed bad bacteria and further impact our mood.” Infrared saunas, specifically, are gaining popularity because more and more studies are confirming their clinical effectiveness.

Utilize light therapy
Light has the ability to affect our biological rhythms and hormonal balance, our moods and energy levels, and has great implications for our circadian cycles, which can directly tie into our health and well-being. There are even indications that light therapy can raise the effectiveness of medication regimens and that different wavelengths of light affect our minds in different ways. “Lately, I’ve been using a Philips Blue Light in the morning for about 20 to 30 minutes, which uses LED smart bulbs to simulate natural light, whether it be crisp white light reminding you of a spring breeze, the warm white light of a summer sun, or the ice cool daylight of winter,” says Stutland. “Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD.”

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